Ballet Fantastique is so excited for its spring premiere of The Book of Esther: A Rock Gospel Ballet happening THIS weekend at the Hult Center, that we wanted to provide BFans with a special history lesson of gospel music.
The roots of gospel music are not well documented, as early recordings were lost. Stories behind the songs weren’t written down. Updated ancient Protestant hymns—from “Amazing Grace” to “Oh Happy Day,” a 1969 pop hit—make up much of the contemporary gospel songbook, but there is no way to overstate the influence of African American compositions of the 1800s on the development of the genre. “Spirituals” (or “Sorrow Songs,” as they were called) found slaves bringing the rhythms and melodies of their African homeland to tales of Old Testament heroes. While they couldn’t sing openly about their own desire to be free, they could rejoice in the story of Exodus, when the children of Israel yearned to be liberated from bondage with a vigor that suggests deep personal connection. Heavenly salvation and earthly freedom became intertwined. Those who embraced Christianity were told that great rewards awaited believers who endured great tribulations.
Coming out of an oral tradition, gospel music typically utilizes a great deal of repetition. The repetition of the words allowed those who could not read the opportunity to participate in worship. During this time, hymns and sacred songs were lined and repeated in a call-and-response fashion, and the Negro spirituals and work songs emerged. Most of the churches relied on hand clapping and foot stomping as rhythmic accompaniment. There would be guitars and tambourines available (musical instruments were often not allowed) every now and then, but not frequently. Church choirs became a norm only after emancipation. Still, most of the singing was done a cappella.
A Special Note on Mahaila Jackson
Mahalia Jackson, one of the most famous gospel singers still to this day, had an overpowering impact on the history of gospel music (one of the songs she made famous, “Trouble of the World,” is the choir’s first piece in Ballet Fantastique’s The Book of Esther premiere). What Jackson was apparently able to do better than virtually all singers before or after her, was take listeners to a place where they could feel the “touch” of the Holy Spirit. Transcending emotion, this spiritual “anointing” is upheld as the pinnacle of human experience.
In many African American churches, the absence or presence of such a gift is signaled by a series of responses from the congregation. According to a study by Mellonee Burnim, respondents repeatedly and consistently reported that for the Holy Spirit to be present, the singer is required to possess a voice that “must transmit intensity, fullness, and the sense that tremendous energy is being expelled.”
This, of course, is exactly what happened in the numerous contemporary accounts of Mahalia Jackson performances. During a particularly emotional church service during this period, Laurraine Goreau records one overwhelmed congregant as shouting, “That woman sing too hard; she going to have TB!” And thus, in the heart of the Depression, began the rise of one of America’s greatest singers.